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Bottom Line: Vermont Wedding Association Vows to Keep It Together Until Nuptials Are Safe Again

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Part of a mock wedding ceremony from Miss Jackie's Studio of Dance, held at the Killington Bridal Show in 2019 - PHOTOS COURTESY OF VERMONT WEDDING ASSOCIATION
  • Photos Courtesy Of Vermont Wedding Association
  • Part of a mock wedding ceremony from Miss Jackie's Studio of Dance, held at the Killington Bridal Show in 2019

At least twice a week, Judy Risteff hears from a teary or angst-ridden bride-to-be, asking her a question that's virtually impossible to answer: "When is it safe for me to schedule my wedding?"

Risteff, who is founder and owner of the Vermont Wedding Association, has been offering her best guess, which she's also posted on the group's website: "We are very hopeful for 2021 late summer and early fall weddings." But, as one bride pressed her recently, "'Hopeful?' What does that even mean?"

Risteff launched the Proctor-based, for-profit trade group 20 years ago as a one-stop resource for couples planning their nuptials in Vermont. At the time, she and her husband, Paul, were doing web and design work for the wedding industry. Realizing that no one in Vermont was regularly hosting bridal shows — events at which local and out-of-state couples could meet dozens of wedding professionals in one place — they organized one themselves. The VWA held its first show at the Killington Grand Resort Hotel in 2001.

In a typical year, the group puts on six to eight bridal shows throughout the state, including one per month in the first quarter. As Risteff explained, those early-year events try to capitalize on the timing of when most couples get engaged — between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day — and start planning their events.

Last year, of course, was anything but typical. Risteff held only one bridal show in 2020, in Burlington last February, before COVID-19 wiped nearly all wedding-related events off the calendar.

Indeed, if someone were to design the perfect super-spreader event, a wedding would fit the bill: a large gathering of people of multiple generations, including the elderly and frail, many of whom travel from diverse geographic locations to eat, drink and celebrate in close proximity for hours at a time.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF VERMONT WEDDING ASSOCIATION
  • Photos Courtesy Of Vermont Wedding Association

Prior to 2020, Vermont averaged about 5,500 weddings a year, generating more than $160 million in economic activity, based on data from the online Wedding Report. One would be hard-pressed to identify an industry more adversely affected by the pandemic than wedding-related businesses, which include hotels, B&Bs, caterers, venues, bands, DJs, photographers and tent companies. Though such businesses don't rely exclusively on Vermont's marital market, for many it's their bread and butter.

According to an August report from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, since the pandemic started, the state's lodging sector reported average monthly losses of more than 96 percent; the arts and entertainment sector, more than 89 percent; and the food services sector, more than 86 percent.

As recently as November, the state allowed up to 50 percent fire-code occupancy at wedding venues, with a maximum of 75 people indoors and 150 outdoors. However, after COVID-19 cases spiked during and after the holidays, the state imposed a ban on all multi-household social gatherings, indoors and outdoors, in public and private spaces, until further notice. At least one popular venue, Shelburne Farms, has said it will not host any weddings in 2021.

Nevertheless, wedding professionals tend to be optimists by nature, Risteff noted, and they're doing their best to soldier on, even when it's meant finding alternative sources of income. But Risteff knows of no VWA member that has gone out of business, and she is seriously considering an outdoor bridal show for sometime this summer.

In fact, many weddings postponed in 2020 are being rescheduled for later in the year — including couples who've already gotten legally married in small ceremonies and now want the "big show," Risteff said. But even when weddings resume, she expects that couples and vendors will still need to abide by the state's strict rules and guidelines.

Buffet dinners, passed hors d'oeuvres, and self-serve coffee and dessert stations? Don't even think about them. As Risteff put it, "You don't want food if someone has been breathing on it."

Likewise, beverages such as beer, wine and soda should be provided in their original containers. Many bar services won't even serve mixed drinks this year due to concerns about spreading the virus. Others will offer premixed cocktails in cups with lids, while appetizers, meals and desserts are doled out in decorative carry-away boxes.

In addition to the now-commonplace practices related to social distancing and mask wearing, Risteff is also advising couples on not-so-obvious guidelines, including calculating the minimum number of hand-sanitizing stations needed per square foot of event space, seating charts that group couples and families into COVID-19-safe pods, and schedules and flow charts that direct guests regarding when and where it's safe to eat.

Despite Vermont's restrictions, Risteff has heard stories of couples who've "gone rogue" during the pandemic, hosting weddings that violated Vermont's mandatory quarantine times, maximum guest limits and contact-tracing requirements.

"We're not supposed to talk about it, but we know it's happening," she said. "To me, they're setting a dangerous precedent. We all bear that burden of responsibility to keep each other safe."

To protect themselves from lawsuits, Risteff said, some wedding vendors are now rewriting their contracts to allow them to "walk away" from an event if guests flagrantly flout their preestablished rules.

Even when event planners and wedding venues abide by all state guidelines, there are no safety guarantees. In October, the Barn at Boyden Farm in Cambridge hosted a 77-guest affair that was supposed to be an outdoor event, until a thunderstorm drove the celebration inside. At least seven guests later tested positive for COVID-19.

Risteff said such episodes can be "the kiss of death" for venues trying their best to survive the pandemic. As she recently told one bride-to-be, who was planning an outdoor affair in Stowe for this August, be prepared with extra tent space in case the weather doesn't cooperate.

As Risteff's own business derives its income from an industry that's suffering, the VWA has taken financial hits, too. With all of its bridal shows canceled and most of its 125 members seeing little or no revenue coming in yet, the VWA put a moratorium on its membership dues, which Risteff said will remain in effect "until we are able to safely gather again."

And, because she hires staff for her bridal shows on an as-needed basis — except for Risteff, who works from a home office, most employees are high school or college students — the VWA didn't qualify for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. Beyond a couple of modest grants she received to "keep the proverbial doors open," the business has had to ride out this storm on its own.

"The biggest problem for people is that it seems endless," Risteff said. "But there is a light flickering at the end of the dark tunnel, and the light is getting brighter. We've just got to hold on a little longer."

Bottom Line is a series on how Vermont businesses are faring during the pandemic. Got a tip? Email bottomline@sevendaysvt.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Aisle Be Back | The Vermont Wedding Association vows to keep it together until nuptials are safe again"